Oct 20 2011 12:00pm

Reopening The X-Files: “Pilot”

Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
Original Airdate: September 10, 1993

Pity the pilot. So many are messy, unfocused, priorities all askew, footing all wrong, network notes sticking out all over. They’re raised as sales tools then sent out into the world as entertainment, leaving you and me — the fans — to indulge them. Lie back, smile righteous smiles, advise our friends to give it a few episodes, because better times are to come. And The X-Files, that noted game-changer, that first-in-a-line-of, surely it didn’t start strong, right? Probably the first episode has a thing about how aliens are responsible for scrunchies or grunge or whatever else was going on back then, right?

BUT: NO. The X-Files pilot doesn’t need your pity! It doesn’t need your indulgence! The X-Files pilot is, in fact, pretty okay! Here’s Chris Carter, 1993, trying to sell Fox on a scary show with oblique plotlines and very little sex and you know what he does? He just does that, delivering a neatly written episode that bears all of the show’s early trademarks without confusion or crowding. It’s pretty great.

First off, we’re introduced to Agent Dana Scully as she is brought into what I think is known as the FBI’s Office of Divisional Exposition. She sits up straight in a room full of furrowed brows and tells us what we need to know about herself (doctor, recruited for the FBI out of med school, has parents), Agent Fox Mulder (Oxford educated psychologist, best analyst in the violent crimes division, nicknamed “Spooky”), and the X-Files (something something unexplained phenomena). Scully also says that she sees the FBI as a place where she can distinguish herself, prompting the furrowed-brow men to take their brows and furrow them further. What a nice young woman, they think. She wants to impress us and therefore she’ll absolutely always entirely do what she’s told! Pleased with their own brilliance, the brow-furrowers drop the other shoe and inform her that she’s been  assigned to work with this Mulder fellow on the X-Files. Our nice young Scully cuts straight to it: “Am I to understand that you want me to debunk the X-Files project?”

Their answer of course, is no. First of all, no one calls it the “X-Files project.” Second, they picked her for her science! You know, science! And of course she’s meant to file reports on every case, but it’s not at all like she’s part of a vast conspiracy to silence the truth. Scully accepts this explanation, but not without a glance over her shoulder at the taciturn, cigarette-smoking man lurking in the corner of the office. You know. The one looking somehow so completely evil and so completely unconcerned.

By the way, this is all just in the first few minutes. Way to go, pilot!

Down in the FBI’s Department of Most Unwanted, Fox Mulder squints at some slides and sasses at Scully. He doesn’t trust her presence and he copes with that in a hugely mature, Oxford-educated way: by getting all up in her face, demanding to know if she believes in extraterrestrials, and scoffing when she says not so much. Also he asks her to identify wounds via slideshow and waves around a copy of her senior thesis which, at least, he claims to have liked. You want to hate him a little bit, but David Duchovny does a nice job indicating that his problem is less with Scully and more with the men who sent her. He doesn’t yet know that she doesn’t know. And neither of them know, yet, how much they have in common.

Their first case together is in the very plausible state of Oregon, where four teenagers from the same graduating class have died. Mysteriously. Mulder is straight-up, straight-off convinced that it’s an alien abduction situation; Scully is straight-up, straight-off convinced there is a very reasonable explanation for this. Their investigation turns up a grab-bag of alien abduction lore — bright lights shining through the woods, a two-legged figure with big eyes, turbulence, radio interference, missing time, nosebleeds, a mysterious wound, a nasal implant, and a guy who is apparently in a coma but who is actually being controlled by unseen forces. It’s somehow all as creepy as it is familiar, and herein lies the show’s game: to take on pervasive legends and to present them not as reality unquestionable but as a reality possible; one that you might find if you just believed.

Layered over top of all this is a healthy dose of interference from the local sheriff and medical examiner. Turns out their favorite activities include speaking pissily to Mulder and Scully and also hiding/destroying/burning/denying evidence that anything bad is happening, at all, ever! They’re also first in what will be a long line of folks reacting badly to “the fantastic as a plausibility.” Structurally, they inject a little doubt into the show’s confident acknowledgement of the supernatural. The bad things, the creepy things, they’re not always alien. Maybe the real threat is at home. After all, aliens might leave your kids for dead, but these men might burn down an entire motel, dig up some corpses, and shotgun-whip a federal agent just to get this whole thing over with.

Now, ultimately, this is an episode about a man and a woman becoming partners, right? So maybe it’s inevitable that there would be one whopping miscalculation of a scene involving Scully in her very sensible underpants and Mulder spilling his guts by candlelight. Not sex! No! But possibly worse! See: Scully finds some suspicious marks on her back and goes running to Mulder for assistance. She throws off her robe and stands quivering as Mulder identifies them as mosquito bites (Doctor Scully), and she throws her arms around him. Inspired by her partial nudity and sudden lack of professional demeanor, Mulder confesses that his dedication to the X-Files stems from his belief that his sister (who he doesn’t name, here, but let’s call her Samantha) was abducted by aliens. It’s all very sweet, I guess. And I suppose it shows how deeply Scully is affected by the case. But all that robe-throwing and soul-bearing reads as clumsy and forced. Mulder and Scully will have, someday, a complex relationship to rival them all. There’s time enough for development, but the pilot doesn’t know that.

By the end of the episode, the truth is definitely out there. There isn’t a clean resolution — there rarely will be — instead, the loose ends give us room to imagine what’s to come. Mulder watches coma-kid stand in a pool of light, holding another classmate while leaves swirl around them. Scully misses it because she got whacked on the head by the desperate, bad-choice sheriff. Back in DC, Mulder makes a late night call to Scully because he can’t sleep and also probably she’s the only person whose phone number he has. Scully takes the call, mumbles something, and feels uneasy. And the only surviving piece of evidence — an implant — is taken by the Cigarette-Smoking Man and filed in a Pentagon room with lots and lots of files. Good job, pilot. You’ve flown true.

Next week: “Deep Throat”

Want to watch along? The entire series is currently streaming on Netflix as well as Hulu.

Meghan Deans believes it is nice to be suddenly so highly regarded. She has a Tumblr and is @meghandrrns on Twitter.

1. Reade
I'd forgotten how quickly the Pilot grabbed me right from the get go. The show aired on my birthday, and I was home alone with a newish baby. I knew what I was going to be doing every week from that point on.

I loved Scully and Mulder in this. And CSM - so threatening without even talking. And this ep set up the nose bleeds and implants too!
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
I'm going to have to rewatch this before commenting much, but I do recall thinking that it was great and hoping that Fox let it go more than a couple episodes and that the writing continued to shine. Luckily, both hopes worked out.
Fredrik Coulter
3. fcoulter
It's also available from Amazon; free if you're a Prime member. I think I'll be watching the episodes as you do. Should be fun.
4. Pendard
X-Files rewatch -- great idea!

I've always really liked the pilot. I think it got the tone of the show down on the first try, better than a lot of the other episodes in the first season, actually. I didn't mind the mosquito bite scene either, since you expect something scary and you get something funny instead, which I think was a good twist (and one that The X-Files uses a lot). The whole incident leaves our two sexually repressed heroes feeling a bit ridiculous, which is a great way to break the ice between them. I thought it was all pretty clever.
Ashley McGee
5. AshleyMcGee
Yes! The X:Files! I remember the X:Files coming out in the early 1990s. My aunt watched a re-run of the Pilot episode at Christmas in 1993. I remember the death of The Lone Gunmen im 2004. I think, as of this day, in the closest proximity to any other nerds, I am the biggest X:Files fan ever. Even my husband won't sit with me through entire episodes. I think my favorite episodes to this day are still "Beyond the Sea" and most of Season 7. I can't wait to go through all the X: Files episodes with you guys. The truth is out there!

Fangirl, status: check.
6. PhoebeSF
But all that robe-throwing and soul-bearing reads as clumsy and forced.
Mulder and Scully will have, someday, a complex relationship to rival
them all. There’s time enough for development, but the pilot doesn’t
know that.

Back when I was 13 and an anti-shipper, I would have agreed with you. Now I see it as a wonderfully intimate scene that ultimate set up a decade of sexual tension ultimately culminating in a relationship that worked really well in the last movie. Worked well for me on rewatch.
Ian Tregillis
7. ITregillis
shalter@2: I do recall thinking that it was great and hoping that Fox let it go
more than a couple episodes and that the writing continued to shine.

That was exactly my reaction. I remember watching this when it aired, and afterwards thinking, "Gee, this could turn into something really neat. Too bad it's doomed." I was very glad to be proven wrong on that one.

But all that robe-throwing and soul-bearing reads as clumsy and forced.
Mulder and Scully will have, someday, a complex relationship to rival
them all. There’s time enough for development, but the pilot doesn’t
know that.

I remember thinking this scene felt a little forced when I first watched this pilot. And on later rewatches it bothered me because it seems a little out of character for rational Scully. But I'm okay with it because it is a pilot after all and surely they wanted to sex it up just the teensiest bit. And now I look back on that scene with fondness, because this is where we see the first roots of that fantastic relationship taking hold. It's hard to watch this scene without seeing it in the context of all the things that Mulder and Scully will experience together over the next 9 years.
Meghan Deans
8. Meghan
@AshleyMcGee - I'm so excited to rewatch "Beyond the Sea" in the next few weeks! I also remember it being a favorite.

@Pendard/@PhoebeSF, I think that scene ticks me primarily because I feel like there's a way to get to that sweetness without making Scully dumb--they make such a big deal about her Training as a Medical Doctor, her inability to identify a common bug bite (even in a moment of panic!) rings a little false. But Pendard, you make a good point about how it successfully shows the ice breaking between two sexually repressed people. Despite the partial nudity, the scene basically turns into a chaste slumber party.

@PhoebeSF I also have a history as an anti-shipper, so you'll have to keep an eye on me! I like to think that these days I'm a bit more open to the 'ship (and I'm definitely open to the strong collaborative relationship).
9. JamieH
@shalter’s comment is timestamped 11:21 AM. I think the fact I still notice crap like this a decade or two later is evidence enough of my immense X-Files fannage. I’m excited! Let’s do this!

As for the pilot, they really did a bang-up job with this thing, all things considered. It’s one I still love to rewatch. Even the robe-throwing and soul-bearing, clumsy as it may be. Although I would say that might be Scully at the height of her rationality: who wouldn’t come up with the weirdest excuse ever to dive into Mulder’s room in a power outage?
Ian Tregillis
10. ITregillis
@shalter’s comment is timestamped 11:21 AM

That is totally cool. And oh-so appropriate.
11. PhoebeSF
@Meghan Ah, knew it! I can spot my former kind from miles away. ;) I look forward to hearing your analysis of their relationship. After movie 2, I realized that my reading was ultimately the wrong one, and it really did cast the rest of the series in a new light.

Odd to feel things that your 13-year-old self would despise you for.
Steven Halter
12. stevenhalter
Jamie@9:That's cool of you to notice that. Coincidence?
13. CWA
I was 13 when the X-Files premiered, and I remember being mildly miffed that, while still a paranormal inflected show, it was bumping off Sightings, my weekly kooky people and UFO clip show. Yes, I was a paranormal nerd in middle school. Now I can look back at those first 3, 4 seasons of the X-Files as the most pure serialized TV fandom experience of my life. While I lost interest in the show somewhere around season 6 or 7, I still go back to certain seasons and episodes (my Jose Chung VHS I recorded from the first rerun of the episode wore out sometime in '98) pretty regularly. I'm looking forward to following this series, it was a good choice!
14. jerec84
The Pilot always amazed me at how closely it resembled what the rest of Season 1 would look and feel like. When I recommend the X-Files to people, this is where they should start (I do recommend skipping a few season 1 episodes, like Space, which make very little sense).
Jenny Thrash
15. Sihaya
Oh! October is a great month to start watching the X Files. I'm going to get a bag of popcorn and cue it up after dark tonight.
Ursula L
16. Ursula
I remembering watching the pilot while I was in college. Sadly, the opening card about how the story was based on true events completely threw me, and I hated it.

Some years later, I caught some episodes in reruns, and without the claim of truth being there to un-suspend my disbelief, I fell for the show.
17. Hatgirl
I had to search the googles for my favourite version of The X-Files Drinking (or snacking) Game
Some of my favourites are:
Scully or Mulder says "it's me".
Mulder loses his gun or cellular phone.
Our favorite agents use their super-duper flashlights.
Any character sees/eats/mentions sunflower seeds.
Warren Ockrassa
18. warreno
It's worth mentioning that at just over 200 episodes, a full rewatch of the X-files, once a week, will take four years. You might want to go a little faster than that.
Chris Lough
19. TorChris
@18. No worries, Warren. This rewatch will be selected episodes so it's going to be a good combo of substantive and speedy.
20. Madeline
Just watched this for the first time a few weeks ago, when my friends started a "highlights" rewatch. Was surprised that it was actually pretty good! Also suprised that the UST between Mulder and Scully started right in the pilot. Didn't think it was too strange, since I felt they had sold the creepiness enough that Scully would like some independent confirmation. Felt like Scully was being a bit jerked around by the writers in the first few episodes, before getting to be more of a full partner.

Also: was shocked that Mulder was mispronouncing "Oregon". This isn't "Carribean" or "New Orleans". There are not two valid pronunciations of "Oregon". How on Earth is a person (a whole TV show!) so unaware of the West Coast as to not know how to pronounce "Oregon"? However, I think someone clued in shortly, because I think after this he pronounces it right... Which is good, because we were all correcting him out loud. :)
21. Amasea
"I think that scene ticks me primarily because I feel like there's a way to get to that sweetness without making Scully dumb--they make such a big deal about her Training as a Medical Doctor, her inability to identify a common bug bite (even in a moment of panic!) rings a little false."

But panic + it's on her back where she can only feel it + crappy mirrors in crummy hotels + bug bites can feel really weird sometimes = I understand why Scully got freaked out. Fortunately, Mulder doesn't yet implicitly trust Scully's opinion, so he's able to not get freaked out with her.

But just one episode a week?? This is going to take FOREVER.
22. Amasea
By the way, I'm really excited about this.

The X-Files was the first thing I was actually fanatical about. I knew Mulder and Scully's phone numbers, badge numbers, license-plate numbers, the addresses of random site locations (both fictional and in Vancouver), all the geeky trivia that I've since given up my brain space to other things for. I wrote 80% of the trivia questions for the bot on the #xfiles IRC chatroom where I was eventually made a mod not because I knew crap about computers, but because I knew more than anyone else about the X-Files. When I moved to Idaho five years ago, I even asked whether there really was a Fairfield Zoo (there isn't; Fairfield has about 100 residents).

So I'm gonna love sharing my love (and loving criticism) for this show with you all :)
Meghan Deans
23. Meghan
@Amasea: I'll be covering select episodes only, so it'll take awhile, but hopefully not forever! Also can I say, w/r/t your Fairfield Zoo story: ADORABLE. Glad to have you on board!
24. whiskeyfingers
My main thing with the bathrobe scene is why didn't Scully just take the 45 seconds to put her pants and shirt back on? Then she just has to go in and lift up her shirt a bit for Mulder to check her lower back.
David Scotton
25. Kaxon
Early X-Files was so good. I remember being completely blown away by
"The Erlenmeyer Flask" at the end of season 1 - still one of the best episodes of TV I've seen. Although I lost interest after the first few seasons, I still remember the show fondly.

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